Doctor calls for release of women at Taylor immigrant detention center

April 3, 2020

New article in medical journal warns local health systems will be overwhelmed by ICE detention

AUSTIN — Dr. Allen Keller, Associate Professer of Medicine at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine and founder of the Bellevue Program for Survivors of Torture, sent a letter Tuesday to the Williamson County Health Authority Lori Palazzo calling for the Williamson County Health District to intervene for the immediate release of hundreds of women seeking asylum who are currently detained at the T. Don Hutto detention center in Taylor, Texas.

Dr. Keller, who has more than 25 years experience evaluating conditions in prisons and detention centers, writes in his letter, “Hutto’s crowded conditions and limited healthcare capacity make it unsafe for detained immigrants. Social distancing, essential for minimizing COVID-19 spread is virtually impossible at Hutto...I am deeply concerned that COVID-19 will spread like wildfire both within and outside the facility.” He adds, “It is almost certain that immigration detention staff, as well as contractors and vendors, will unknowingly spread COVID-19 infection they acquired in the community...The risk of unknowingly spreading COVID-19 is made even greater given the substantial time period during which those infected with COVID-19 do not yet show symptoms but are shedding the virus and are highly contagious. Inadequate testing capacity, as well as the risk of missing infections even when testing becomes available, makes a dangerous situation even worse. Both detained immigrants and members of the local community are unnecessarily put at risk.”

The letter comes as more people detained and guards test positive for COVID-19 and quarantines and protests have been reported at dozens of detention centers nationwide. More than 3000 medical professionals signed a letter calling on ICE to release all detained people. Tuesday Representative Joaquín Castro, Chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus called on ICE to “release all detainees now before lives are lost.”

After community members asked Taylor Mayor Brandt Rydell about a plan for an outbreak at T. Don Hutto, the City of Taylor published this statement from ICE on their website. Community members also called the Williamson County health authority last week, and were reportedly told that the county was relying on ICE to respond to the public health situation created by the pandemic.

Yet an affidavit  in the Fraihat v. ICE case from Dr. Homer Venters, once a Deputy Medical Director of the NYC Jail Correctional Health Service, emphasizes the inadequacy of ICE’s plan, saying that it doesn’t take into account close contact necessitated by prison architecture and that prolonged lockdown is inhumane and won’t stop the spread of the virus. Dr. Keller’s recent article in Lancet Public Health describes further public health risks associated with detention. “ICE detention facilities are often located in small, isolated towns that employ local residents who move each day between facility and community. As SARS-CoV-2 spreads, local health-care systems will be overwhelmed.” He also discusses the public health impact of transfers and deportations, stating that “Arguably, it would be difficult to devise a system better suited for spreading SARS-CoV-2.”  

Now that ICE has banned social visits for people in detention and officials at T. Don Hutto have cut off access to email, those detained at Hutto have few channels to the outside world. Although ICE states that there are no confirmed COVID-19 cases at Hutto, the women detained have no ability to visit an outside doctor or request to be tested if they are experiencing symptoms. Advocates say that local inaction that would delegate public health at detention centers solely to ICE could be disastrous.

“Williamson County health officials and local leaders have received a clear message from medical professionals: T. Don Hutto is a tinderbox for a coronavirus outbreak, which could be deadly for the women inside and the entire community.” said Bethany Carson, immigration researcher and organizer at Grassroots Leadership. “The only question is, will they act now and call on ICE to protect public health by releasing the women detained at Hutto, or continue to deny responsibility until it is too late?

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Grassroots Leadership is an Austin, Texas-based national organization that works for a more just society where prison profiteering, mass incarceration, deportation, and criminalization are things of the past. Follow us @Grassroots_News.